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Shots, socks offered for needy at North Side mission

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 10:01 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto serves the first Thanksgiving meal at the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Registered nurse Veronica Lewis gives a flu shot to Mike Johnson, 47, of the North Side at the Light of Life Rescue Mission on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Registered nurse Veronica Lewis and other local nurses wait to give flu shots and socks to the homeless at the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013.

Mike Johnson grimaced as the needle went into the upper part of his left arm.

Seconds later, with the influenza vaccine delivered, Johnson was smiling again.

“I can't stand needles,” said Johnson, 47, of the North Side.

Johnson was one of dozens to receive a free flu shot and a pair of socks on a cold Thanksgiving Day at the Light of Life Rescue Mission in the North Side. Organized by the Allegheny County Health Department and the county Immunization Coalition, the “Shots & Socks” event aimed to bring free vaccinations to homeless people eating Thanksgiving dinner at the mission.

“This was the perfect venue,” said Sharon Silvestri, chief of the health department's infectious disease program, to reach a typically under-served population that can be particularly vulnerable to seasonal flu.

Light of Life was expecting 500 to 1,000 people to show up for its free dinner Thursday, an annual event that also included giveaways of blankets and other cold-weather gear.

Mayor-elect Bill Peduto spent about an hour at the mission serving dinner, a volunteering activity he said he's performed on and off for the last 15 years.

“My job is to bring attention to what they do here every day,” Peduto said.

Silvestri said the coalition decided this year to focus its outreach on homeless people, especially those who spend time in shelters because they can easily spread the illness when living in close quarters.

Many adults do not get flu shots, and homeless people often can't afford the vaccination, she said.

“There aren't a lot of places to get a free vaccination,” said Nancy Scopelitis, a county public health nurse volunteering at the event.

Only about 41 percent of American adults received a flu shot last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 44 out of every 100,000 Americans was hospitalized last year with the flu, the CDC said.

John Smith, 63, of Avalon made his way to the mission by bus just to get his shot. He didn't have the money to pay for one the past two years and fell ill.

“When it's offered to you, you get it,” Smith said.

But not everyone who showed up for dinner wanted a shot.

The health department received 200 doses from the state, but Silvestri said only 37 were given out.

“This is our first year so you never know,” she said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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